Where has all the vision gone?

By staff April 1, 2006

It is "the vision thing," isn't it?

Looking around our city, after the years that have passed since we first began to formulate a new downtown master plan, I can't discern any strong vision at work.

Instead, we see construction everywhere, surging upward and outward, often devoid of any obvious commitment to urban context or architectural adventure. Don't get me wrong-new construction is not a bad thing; it signals prosperity now and faith in our community's future. And no one with any brains would argue that people should not be free to realize the reasonable financial potential in their properties.

This is not the quaint little city we believe we remember and foolishly want to preserve. When I first visited here, in the early 1940s, Sarasota was quaint, all right-quaint and sleepy. In fact it was comatose, the recovering victim of the great property crash related to the Depression.

Nor is Sarasota the postwar community of the 1950s, when strong personalities with exceptional talent nurtured, among other movements, the Sarasota School of Architecture, a breeding ground for modernist design that was hailed as the brave new world found in Popular Science magazine. It was intended to provide new building techniques for the construction boom that followed the return of our armed forces, who were looking for housing, schools and community life. The Sarasota School was an essential part of a general resurgence in visual arts and literature here, picking up where the fanciful Ringling era had left off, addressing a world transformed by science and war.

For various reasons, including materials and concepts poorly suited to the climate, these adventurous structures were neglected, modified beyond recognition or simply destroyed. While much of this regrettable destruction was due to the compulsion to squeeze more money out of the property, it must be acknowledged that many of the Sarasota School structures failed to meet the expectations of a culture quickly addicted to air conditioning and multicar garages. Enter the dreaded "Med-Rev," in all its theatrical trappings.

Clearly it was time for a new vision, and about five years ago civic leaders convened a series of meetings guided by the guru of New Urbanism, Andres Duany, aimed at devising a master plan that would set the standards and practices for future development. The promise of a city distinguished by innovative architecture, human scale, a welcome neighborliness and pedestrian-oriented streets was intoxicating to the many architects, developers, planners and ordinary citizens who attended. Soon renderings were everywhere, evoking an exciting new streetscape.

The concept of the street as the communal social space intrigued almost everyone. The downtown street, we hypothesized, would be defined by building to the property line but would be humanized by setbacks up to a certain level, so the pedestrian won't feel intimidated as the building rises to its permitted height. Mixed-use buildings would incorporate and shelter small businesses and provide a stock of reasonably priced housing.

Zones to ease the transition from the downtown core to less intensive commercial and mixed-use areas, and from there to the residential sections, were worked and re-worked, not without vivid-sometimes raucous-debate. Heights, colors, styles, frontages, access, every conceivable aspect of city planning were examined.

Paper flowed, guidelines were drafted and redrafted, public input was encouraged, and objections were addressed. The plan, we all recognized, would be a living document, modified and amended as the need arose. The goal was clear: to make Sarasota an exemplary city, worthy of its heritage and honoring its inhabitants, an example of fuctional urban design, a bellwether of the new American city, in which prosperity would be tempered by dedication to excellence and the common good.

We left those sessions ready to work with the appropriate officials to craft codes that would bring the vision to life. Doing so, we believed, would ensure a future Sarasota responding to our needs and dreams. Most crucially, we believed that the financial forces behind future development shared our vision of a place crafted with community well-being in mind, even if that meant the sacrifice of some profit.

Behind the scenes, however, the vision was already beginning to fray and fade.

The sound of people rushing to obtain building permits before the adoption of the new plan became deafening. Even prominent business leaders who had participated in the lengthy charettes and voiced enthusiastic support for the plans joined in the stampede. Buildings unlikely to pass muster under the new codes were submitted in great quantities; many of them were approved; some are now nearing completion. And architects began to have belated second thoughts about design.

Battles started in the historic Burns Court area. The intent had been to restrict the heights of any new buildings in that downtown fringe area to maintain the scale and charm of the 1920s-era neighborhood and the adjoining arts-related streets as much as possible. The mixed-use commercial areas would serve as a transition space from a vibrant, dense downtown to residential areas. But the idea came under fire by those who said their financial interests would be damaged by a "taking" of their ability to build to the 10-story height permitted for most of the central downtown area.

Planning authorities caved, and the area, which had been Downtown Edge, was redesignated Downtown Core, putting Burns Court in peril of isolation as a cute zone surrounded by massive towers or, worse still, of being gradually gobbled up and demolished in spite of the historic designations assigned to several of the buildings in the area. So much for the power of pride in a graceful and human solution to the challenge of the contemporary city.

Now, with disputes raging about arcades, building heights, architectural standards and other parts of the plan, we seem to be in a sullen standoff, with much of the public complaining that the process is rushing past them toward an imposed and artifical urban entity. Even when the concern about Main Street arcades was dealt with by the City Commission, removing them from code requirements now with the promise to revisit this potentially interesting aspect later, the atmosphere remained tense and confrontational.

What underlies all of this is the replacement of vision by squabbling, and, alas, the greed that is responsible for many of the bloated and vulgar buildings that have begun to deface downtown, unfriendly buildings that might have been given a human scale had they been part of a functioning master plan. They would have been forced to meet the street in a consistent way, given setbacks to reduce their perceived mass and compelled to contribute to the communal life that characterizes a great city.

Every day that passes without the implementation of guidelines on which we can agree now and revisit later brings a greater probability that the city we envisioned will die stillborn or survive only in an ineffective and nominal form. If you don't recognize Sarasota now, wait until you see the results of unregulated development devoid of civic pride, a city in which too few are willing to sacrifice a few bucks in the interests of the common good.

The question must be asked: Will this be the city we want to live in and bequeath to our successors? Ten years from now, will our streets be canyons of trick architecture, collections of cheesy imitiations of a style that was never genuine to begin with? Or will we walk with pride past buildings that respond to our cultural heritage with new creativity, structures that invite participation and interaction? Will the city that belongs to all our citizens reflect the courageous leadership of elected officials and a business community devoted to the greater good, guided by agreed-upon design and planning guidelines? Not if things continue in the current "me-first" mode, the short-sighted mindset that could ultimately undermine the prosperity as well as the livability of our city.

We must bring the vision thing back.

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